Academy Award Wins: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Supporting Actress
Despite the somewhat-middling success of his period epic, GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), director Martin Scorsese experienced a resurgent wave of popularity and critical appreciation that re-established his position as one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. Even though GANGS OF NEW YORK underperformed against expectations, a plurality of public goodwill prodded Scorsese towards yet another period epic—and another shot at the golden statue that had eluded him ever since his first nomination for RAGING BULL in 1980.
This new attempt would be 2004’s THE AVIATOR, a lavish biopic about eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and his innovations in the field of flight. The project, like Scorsese’s Oscar ambitions, had long been in development—the earliest version dates back to the early 1970’s as a vehicle for Warren Beatty. As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, the project landed under the stewardship of director Michael Mann, who had just come off a string of biopics like 1999’s THE INSIDER and 2001’s ALI and was developing the project in partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way. When Mann decided that he no longer wanted to direct, DiCaprio immediately took the project to Scorsese, expressing a fervent desire to work with the master filmmaker again after their successful collaboration in GANGS OF NEW YORK. Scorsese agreed to take on the project, and despite knowing absolutely nothing about aviation, was able to channel his love for old Hollywood and cinema history into making THE AVIATOR an exhilarating spectacle that would count as one of the biggest successes of his career.
Despite their friction on the set of GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATOR finds Scorsese reteaming with executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein to realize a script by John Logan, who sets the action in California during the prime of Hughes’ life: a twenty year period that spanned the Roaring Twenties and World War II. Hughes was a notable figure in American history—he was the country’s first billionaire, and was responsible for a number of game-changing innovations that would make aviation one of the dominant forces of the twentieth century. He was the embodiment of that particular brand of rugged individualism espoused by figures like Ayn Rand and perpetuated by hypocritical politicians who lack the courage to make bold choices out of the fear of alienating their base—but I digress. THE AVIATOR follows Hughes from his days as an idealistic young man mounting his troubled passion project—a film called HELL’S ANGELS— and continuing onwards to chronicle his efforts to build the fastest, sleekest airplanes around. His high-profile business exploits, romantic dalliances with the biggest movie starlets of the day, and bottomless pockets make him the toast of the town. He ably projects the aura of a charismatic playboy and titan of industry, but in private, he is a tortured soul—beset by his escalating condition as an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe and the looming encroachment of a US Government intent on discrediting him as a fraud. As his sanity threatens to depart from him entirely, Hughes channels his energies and obsessions into building the world’s largest airplane—a plane he lovingly calls The Hercules but the press dismisses as The Spruce Goose. Building it is one thing… but getting it to fly is something else entirely, and it becomes a challenge that Hughes will only overcome by putting his reputation and entire life’s work on the line.
In his second collaboration for Scorsese, DiCaprio assumes a nasally affectation to channel the spirit of Hughes- an eccentric billionaire, filmmaker, aviator, and all-around Renaissance Man. While he can easily assume the persona of a rich playboy, the necessity of believably conveying a man crippled by his OCD provides a great challenge—the sort of challenge usually rewarded with an Oscar. DiCaprio has often been called out for what appears to be a constant campaign to win a gold statue for himself, but the fact of the matter is that the guy is one of the best actors out there. He pours all of himself into every performance, just like Robert De Niro did at his age—it’s no wonder Scorsese continues to work with him again and again. As expected, DiCaprio was nominated for his performance, but he didn’t leave the ceremony with an Oscar of his own. That honor would to go his co-star Cate Blanchett, who would hold the dubiously-meta distinction of being the first person to win an Oscar for her performance as a real-life Oscar winner. As golden age Hollywood icon Katharine Hepburn, Blanchett slathers on a thick Transatlantic accent to play the spunky, tomboyish thespian. Character actor Alan Alda plays Senator Owen Brewster, the film’s de facto antagonist—a cynical, calculating man who harbors a personal grudge against Hughes and uses his powers as a politician to pursue his petty vendetta.
As befitting a lavish period epic detailing the golden heyday of old Hollywood, Scorsese populates his supporting cast with some high-profile faces. Kate Beckinsale plays a secondary love in Hughes’ life– the aloof, sultry starlet Ava Gardner. Beckinsale plays her as strong-willed and tempestuous, but she also allows us a glimpse into the character’s hidden compassionate side when she helps pull Hughes out of a debilitating downward spiral brought on by a particularly harmful obsessive compulsive episode. After his turn as a corrupt cop in GANGS OF NEW YORK, John C Reilly is called right back to action as Noah Deitrich, Hughes’ money man and business partner. Danny Huston plays Jack Frye, Hughes’ partner at TWA. Alec Baldwin essentially plays himself, but in the guise of a Pan Am executive by the name of Juan Trippe. Interestingly, some of the most recognizable faces in the film are relegated to cameos, like the appearance of Gwen Stefani in the persona of platinum blonde starlet Jean Harlow, or Jude Law as the debonair actor Errol Flynn. There’s also THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) star Willem Dafoe, who pops up in in one scene as a private investigator who’s Communist sympathies are used against him as blackmail.
Collaborating once more with his CASINO (1995) and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) cinematographer, Robert Richardson, Scorsese applies a drastically different look to THE AVIATOR than any of his prior films—netting Richardson an Oscar win of his own in the process. The most immediately striking aspect of the visual presentation is the color timing of the anamorphic film image. By 2004, digital intermediates were commonplace, and the tool set that a filmmaker had to manipulate his or her image had multiplied exponentially. Whereas most filmmakers at the time were giving their films highly stylized looks simply for the sake that that they could, Scorsese stood beside other artists like the Coen Brothers in using stylized color timing as a valuable storytelling tool. In keeping with his extensive knowledge of film history, Scorsese colors THE AVIATOR in a way that conveys the look of color films from the era, depending on the technical limitations of the time. For instance, the first half of the film is rendered in various shades of red and blue—notice that there is no green whatsoever. Indeed, the fact that naturally green objects, like grass on a golf course or peas on a plate, turn up in a bright blue hue caused many people to wonder if their projectionist was projecting a faulty print, or if was off on their TV sets. This is intentional—a look that’s meant to replicate the capabilities of the bipack color process that was in use during the 20’s and 30s—a process that could only convey color in shades of red and blue.
As time passes, Scorsese quietly switches to a naturalistic, albeit highly saturated color scheme—if we missed the greens before, they’re certainly here now and they won’t be ignored. This look resembles the midcentury advent of 3-strip Technicolor, a primitive iteration of the process now in ubiquitous use today. Scorsese complements this exaggerated color timing with theatrical, expressionistic lighting setups. One shot in particular acts like a variation on Scorsese’s signature “iris shot”, wherein DiCaprio’s head is framed looking out onto a black void in the background, which is then illuminated section by section to reveal the large crowd before him.
Scorsese retains several core elements of his visual aesthetic in THE AVIATOR, like the constant use of Steadicam rigs, split-focus diopter compositions, push-ins, and long tracking shots. The sheer momentum of Scorsese’s camera allows for a dynamic, energetic, and Oscar-winning edit from his longtime cutting collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. Production designer Dante Ferretti also took home a golden statue for his Art Deco-inspired set designs, which help sell the exaggerated, grandiose sense of history that Scorsese is after. It’s interesting to note that a director’s most valuable technical collaborators– the cinematographer, editor, and production designer– all won Oscars for their work on THE AVIATOR; work that was done under the singular direction of Scorsese, who himself would be shut out from sharing in that glory with his collaborators despite a nomination of his own.
After their successful collaboration on GANGS OF NEW YORK, Scorsese re-enlists the talents of Howard Shore, who takes his biggest cues from the classical music that Scorsese inserts into various aviation scenes. To accomplish this, Shore incorporates several classical techniques, like fugues and canons, into his own compositions, supplementing them with trumpets and other regal-sounding instruments. In order to give us a definitive sense of the period, Scorsese sprinkles the soundtracks with needle-drop cues featuring the rock music of the day: jazz, ragtime, and swing. He makes particularly strong use of Artie Shaw’s track “Nightmare”, as well as the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “Moonlight Serenade”, hammering home the film’s 1930’s/40’s setting and capturing the romanticism of a bygone era in Hollywood history.
Despite personally knowing nothing about aviation itself, Scorsese’s approach to making THE AVIATOR comes across as personal and resonant as a result of the director drawing several connections from Hughes’ life to his own. The film’s first act concerns Hughes’ attempts to shoot his independent opus HELL’S ANGELS and gain entry into the elite bubble of Hollywood. Scorsese knew this struggle well, having risen up through the indie ranks himself with low-budget labors of love like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? (1967) and MEAN STREETS (1973). The medium of film itself has always played a prominent role in the lives of Scorsese’s characters, and THE AVIATOR allows him to indulge in this affectation to an unprecedented degree. The characters of THE AVIATOR are filmmakers themselves, key players living in a momentous time in cinematic history– the transition from silent pictures to sound—and their reactions to such developments comprise significant plot points within the narrative. Scorsese has dabbled in this period before, in the guise of 1977’s revisionist musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Indeed, many of the scenes set in the lavish nightclub recall moments and imagery from his earlier film. However, THE AVIATOR gives us a much more comprehensive view of the era, utilizing the latest advances in computer-generated technology to bring the era back to life in glorious Technicolor.
While CGI has enabled Scorsese to realize his vision on a scale never before possible for him, it has had the unfortunate side effect of an increased reliance on the technology—making his recent output appear more stylized and fantastical than the rough, gritty street epics that he’s best known for. However, audiences didn’t seem to particularly care for the loss of raw immediacy in favor of polished sleekness, as THE AVIATOR was met with positive critical reception and very healthy box office numbers. The film holds the distinction of being the first of Scorsese’s films to break the $100 million mark in grosses during its initial theatrical run. Besides the aforementioned Oscar wins for Blanchett, Richardson, Schoonmaker and Ferretti, THE AVIATOR would go on to snag Academy Award nods for Best Picture and Best Director, for a grand total of eleven Oscar nominations. In finding the wide success that had eluded THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATORpropelled Scorsese to even loftier heights as the most-nominated living director (equal to the late Billy Wilder and second only to the late William Wyler), and reinforced his entrance into a third act in his career—an act that would bring him international prestige and cement his legacy.
THE AVIATOR is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.
Produced by: Sandy Climan, Charles Evans Jr, Graham King, Michael Mann
Executive Produced by: Bob and Harvey Weinstein
Written by: John Logan
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
Production Designer: Dante Ferretti
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music by: Howard Shore